Everest  (2015)    96/100

Rating :   96/100                      Treasure Chest                       121 Min        12A

This is an absolute powerhouse of a movie that thunderously announces the start of the awards season, boldly dominating IMAX theatres a week before its theatrical release and, having now watched it twice on IMAX and once on a normal 3D screen, this is definitely one film where the larger format makes a big difference. In fact, even if for some reason you weren’t taken with the story, the visuals of Everest and its surroundings alone make it worth going to see (sections were filmed on the mountain itself, others in the Italian Alps, and then variously at Cinecitta and Pinewood studios).

It’s often the mark of a great film when the more you watch it, the more you actually appreciate and enjoy it – I’ve answered some of my initial criticisms and uncertainties and not only is this easily the best film I’ve seen this year, I actually just wanted to go and watch it again immediately after the credits rolled for my third time (I’d even recommend sitting through them, there are no extra scenes but it’s fascinating to see all the various people and departments involved, and indeed how few stunt performers there were given the nature of the film, and the score from Dario Marianelli {‘Pride and Prejudice’ 05, ‘Atonement’ 07, ‘Anna Karenina’ 12} plays out the film and the credits perfectly – indeed, it’s definitely one of the main highlights throughout, setting exactly the right stirring tone for both drama and adventure).

The story details the events of one particular ascent of Everest in 1996 and as always with this kind of film, it works best if you know absolutely nothing about it going in so I’ll just summarise what the opening credits relate – namely that in the nineties professional climbers, beginning with high profile mountaineer Rob Hall and his company Adventure Consultants, started to organise trips to the summit of Everest as a business, and that between the beginning of organised and successful commercial operations and Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent in 1953, one in four climbers died whilst trying to defeat the mountain. Indeed, the film makes sure to run through the various horrible things that can happen to you humans whilst you try, mostly due to the area being in the ‘Death Zone’, an altitude where the air is too thin to survive for long without a mixture of serious training and artificial aid.

The film is remarkably successful in several key areas, and as always those of principal importance concern the writing which here addresses all of the pitfalls screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (‘Slumdog Millionaire’ 08, ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ 11, ‘The Hunger Games : Catching Fire‘) and William Nicholson (‘Shadowlands’ 93, ‘Gladiator’ 2000) must have been very aware of – they make us care about each of the characters, for example, and artfully deal with the unavoidable ‘what on Earth made you go up there in the first place?’, and although moments like these are in many ways obvious concessions for the benefit of the audience they, asides from the occasional incidence of someone randomly writing squiggles on a board in the background, have been handled really well.

Even though they’re mostly all together, we get to know and appreciate each character through a series of vignettes which are knitted together to form the story – each not only has us guessing what might ultimately happen, but most of them can also be read into in a number of different ways and the writers have been very careful to apply an even handed approach to events with regards to what occurs, leaving plenty of room for discussion afterward and, crucially, making the drama feel very, very human, and it all does an impressive job too of actually making us feel like we’re there, like what we’re witnessing is as we’d experience it if we were on the same, or perhaps any, climbing trip, rather than something stylised or augmented for cinema.

Anyone who’s ever engaged in any kind of outdoor activity may well know that feeling you have when everything is going well and then all of a sudden you realise you might be in a spot of trouble, and as Jason Clarke (playing Rob Hall) says near the beginning of the movie you can’t compromise on safety. When you’re in charge of something and have to make the big calls you’ve got to be brutal and unwavering with them each time (whenever you feel that cold sensation of ‘it’ll probably be fine …’ then you know you’re in a bad spot and should put an end to it right away), and essentially hope that people realise it’s for their own good – in my experience that’s usually a bit of wishful thinking but you’ve got to be ready and prepared for it nonetheless and like all the best films of this type Everest really brings this concept into focus, as well as the audacity and vulnerability of attempting to embrace the natural world on its own terms.

The editing by Mick Audsley and direction from Baltasar Kormákur work perfectly with the writing, as for much of the first half the views are scenic and mostly relaxing and it’s not until the film really gets going that the dramatic, vertigo inducing shots come into play – and although not every moment has the impact that you wish it had, the balance between scaring the audience and not making them vomit is finely achieved, cue moments of ‘is the camera going to carry on moving so we’re looking straight down … yup it is eeeeeeee’, and indeed when you’re filming, panning and rotational shots are some of the easiest to mess up as you always have to move slower than you think you do otherwise it just becomes a blur for the viewer. Sinfully absent, however, are any outstanding shots of the night sky – from Everest the view on a clear night of the Heavens and the Milky Way must be truly a sight to behold and it’s really surprising it doesn’t feature here, and indeed there are two scenes that are shot in the same manner with a static camera, and I can’t help but wish they’d done a more traditional shot for one of them, although they may have been accused of sensationalism that way, or being too cheesy or perhaps even disrespectful to the story.

The acting is universally great from an impressive lineup of stars: the aforementioned Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, John Hawkes, Martin Henderson, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly and non other than the inimitable Keira Knightley. Both Brolin and Clarke are really impressive but especially so with regards to Brolin – the way he’s brought the subtleties of his role to life is one of the biggest and most effective anchors for the entire movie. I love the fact that Keira is in a film about the coveted pinnacle of the physical world as I kind of draw numerous parallels between them and, all obvious jokes aside, here, although her role is very much a supporting one, she is absolutely fantastic in it with a nigh on perfect Kiwi accent, and although there is one line I wish they hadn’t given her character as it sounds like something Elizabeth Swann would say and I wasn’t initially convinced by some of the direction for her scenes (tight frames on her face may suggest playing to her looks over tension etc.) but each and every time it’s her performance that really gets the audience going in a very audible way, so I have to concede the director was right on the money there.

Even Sam Worthington who very much exhibits his familiar ‘I am ON and ready for a FIGHT’ style actually sees it work really well for the film and for me this is currently deserving of an Oscars sweep next year, although it’s very early days yet. I’d love to see Clarke, Brolin, Kormákur, Nicholson, Beaufoy, Watson, Marianelli, cinematographer Salvatore Totino and, indeed, Keira nominated as although her screen time is really small, if the film manages to gain any traction with the Academy then we might see a repeat of what happened with 1976’s ‘Network’, which was a fantastic film that deservedly won a raft of Oscars but also landed Beatrice Straight one for best supporting actress and whom I think still holds the record for shortest screen time, at circa five minutes, for a win in the category and yet provided moments of emotional connection for the audience in a memorable way, and Keira’s scenes here along with her delivery have that same emotive quality and are certainly statuette worthy, but it will only stand a chance of happening if the film itself makes it to the finishing line.

Unusually, I’m not researching anything about this film; partly because, although I may live to rue this, I trust them with the details of the story in this scenario, and also because I don’t want the illusion to be shattered just yet by finding out things like my favourite moments were actually shot in a cosy studio somewhere etc. I’m also looking forward to watching it several more times and getting stuck into the extra material that’s bound to be on the DVD – I remember watching the bonus features for ‘Vertical Limit’ (2000) which wasn’t a particularly great film but after the featurettes and seeing what they went through to film it I had a great deal more respect for the filmmakers, in particular with things like Scott Glenn climbing up the ice with picks and no safety equipment, if memory serves.

There’s something about being able to watch a film detailing people climbing Everest and realistically taking you there with them all from the comfort of your chair in the theatre, something that goes to the very heart of one of cinema’s greatest strengths.

A fantastic film that will stay with you for a very long time.

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